conversation with Ken Field and Michael
Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic originally formed in the early 1980's
as a collaboration between Mission
Of Burma's Roger
Miller and Boston composer Erik Lindgren.
Though they have undergone several personnel changes, including
Miller's departure from the group, the one constant over the years
has been their unique, eclectic blend of avant-garde, 20th century
classical, electronic, and progressive musics. Their latest album
on Cuneiform, "Dancing On A'A"
is their strongest one to date, full of complex, dynamic, and
innovative compositions. I recently had the chance to speak with
saxophonist Ken Field and guitarist Michael
= Ken Field
MB = Michael Bierylo
guess I'll start with something about which I'm always curious
with bands that play what I generally think of as highly composed
or "complex" music: when one of you writes a piece and then brings
it to the ensemble as a whole, how much does the group then work
out and modify the music into its final form? For example, I imagine
that most of the aspects of the composition itself - the themes,
counterpoint, rhythms, and the overall musical form would remain
virtually unchanged, but that a fair amount of arranging and orchestrating
might take place to experiment with the various timbral combinations
available with Birdsongs' instrumentation.
KF: This is a bit different for each of
the composers in the group. Erik is the
most experienced composer, and he generally brings in the most
fully thought-out pieces. We will work with him on actual performance
issues (like that a particular passage is problematic on a certain
instrument, or for a certain performer), and he will rework things
based on this (and other, more artistic) feedback. Erik's
pieces often have some element of improvisation, and this might
involve some back and forth between the person doing the improvisation
and Erik; the improvised part will end
up settling in (after a fair amount of rehearsal) to the kind
of sound Erik was looking for. I am a little
less secure in my pieces (few and far between as they may be).
I will usually put the piece into my notation program on my Mac
so that I can listen to a sequenced version before bringing it
in. But the sequenced version is not at all the same as live performers,
so I will usually hear changes once the group tries it out, and
I will solicit input for changes, development, or rearrangement.
Michael is somewhere between Erik and me.
He brings in computer-generated parts, and goes back and reworks
things a fair amount, but he is more clear than I am on what he
wants before he hears the group try out the piece.
you feel that the process of composition involves not only writing
the music you hear in your head, but also consciously tailoring
certain aspects of that composition to the intended performers?
the case of "new music" where the barriers of style are theoretically
nonexistent, one must write for the individual or the ensemble.
The best of new music plays on the strengths and dialects of individual
performers. Take, for example, "new music" around 1945 by Duke
Ellington. Here was a body of work composed for specific players
in a specific ensemble. Certainly Raymond Scott's or Charles Mingus'
ensembles personified this. A more recent example might be the
Kronos Quartet which over its history has spawned much new composition
by merely existing and providing composers with a stable model
of 20th century string performance. In contrast to this might
be Frank Zappa's iconoclast "I wrote it, you figure out how to
play it" attitude which has been the model for many 20th century
In Birdsongs' case, I think this model holds as the ensemble serves
as a kind of composers' forum. Although the musicianship is relatively
high, It certainly is not a group that is able to successfully
read and perform anything put in front of it. Hence, the most
successful compositions, are to me, the ones that play directly
to the strengths of the individual members. In this case, the
composer's job is not to write what needs to be heard, rather
what needs to be heard from Rick Scott
or Ken Field. I guess to me, the best new
music is notating and organizing what the performer would play
anyway. What makes Birdsongs' music interesting to me is that
each performer has such a divergent background that when they
merge something completely new happens.
the group have any specific goals when you got together to start
work on the latest album; any elements of your previous work that
you wanted to focus on more, or any new aspects you wanted to
I joined the group in 1990 much of my job was not only to learn
the existing body of repertoire but also to establish my own voice,
both as a player and compositionally, within the group. I think
one of the things that changed in the group was that the guitar
was used for melody more. In the past, the guitar had been used
to add edge and texture to the music as this was Mr. Swope's forte.
This was also something the group that we didn't want to lose
and on A'A we've made a conscious effort to retain. I guess part
of joining Birdsongs was to assimilate some of Martin Swope's
As far as other goals for A'A, the thing that you have to understand
is that I think for us, recording is like taking a snapshot of
where the group is at a particular point in time. We had certain
broad sonic goals which our engineer and co-producer Bill Carmen
helped tremendously in focusing on, but musically this was material
which we had been performing for about two years when we had started
to record. This in some way is the opposite to the standard write/record/tour
cycle that has evolved in rock music. I would say that perhaps
broad unspoken goals might include compositions which are entertaining,
challenging, and have an aggressive edge to them at times. As
composers of our generation, we must in some way deal with the
music that surrounds us. I somehow could not write music that
completely ignored the fact that I spent hours rapt by Jimi Hendrix'
"Machine Gun" or the "Mahavishnu Orchestra Birds of Fire" or the
Clashes "Sandinista." In this sense I, and I think the group as
a whole, are very pleased with the snapshot that came out.
We were very happy with the previous CD, Pyroclastics.
I think we were looking with Dancing
on A'A to continue that direction. In addition, we had
new pieces coming from a slightly different place due to the fact
that Michael had joined the group, and we wanted to integrate
those new influences that he had brought with him.
were some of those new influences that Michael brought? The music
of Birdsongs contains so many diverse elements; I'm curious what
specific influences you, Erik, and Rick each individually bring
to the group?
is heavily into things like Bulgarian folk music and Senegalese
music (both Michael and I spent time playing in a Boston-based
Senegalese band). He brings rhythmic and melodic concepts from
these types of music. One interesting thing is that the rhythmic
concepts are not necessarily simple (as one might naively expect);
he pulls lots of time changes into his compositions, for example,
and they are not gratuitous; they are often used to follow lyric-type
melodic lines, as they are in some folk music.
Erik is more into contemporary classical forms and composition,
though I don't really know enough about this to speak intelligently
about it. I am into melodically-based, rhythmic music. I do not
play (with any proficiency) any chordal instrument, so my compositions
tend to be layered melodies, with the harmony falling out from,
rather than dictating, the melodies.
is obviously important to the sound of Birdsongs, with the sequenced
rhythms, electronic percussion, and various samples and effects;
do you experiment with many of the new boxes and electronic gadgets
that come out to find new things to complement or expand the group's
I think we experiment with new toys surprisingly little. We are
pretty aware of what's available (Rick is involved in his other
life with high-end pro audio equipment, and Michael teaches electronic
music and Berklee), but we don't have a lot of money to throw
at buying every new item that comes along. I think this is good,
because I think it is too easy to get diverted from just making
to popular belief, Birdsongs is really a pretty low tech group
in that we're in some ways well behind the curve of what's hot
in music technology. I think it's important to understand that
Birdsongs is a chamber group. We see ourselves more in the genre
of a Kronos Quartet or Philip Glass ensemble (now you want to
talk tech!) than a rock band. In this sense, I think we use technology
as an influence more than tools at times. Part of the musical
vernacular of our time is sample loops. We want to use these as
structural elements in composition. MIDI, at this point is really
low tech. It's been around long enough and has been used by pop/rock
touring acts since the day it came out. Nothing new here. Writing
for technology is much the same as writing for musicians, you
have to figure out what it's good at and write to its strengths.
Computers are quite good at organizing time based tasks, in that
sense they are good at setting up a rhythmic grid or framework
for a composition. Computers are really bad at giving expressive,
spontaneous performances of melody. So within the framework of
Birdsongs, we try and let the musicians do what they do best and
give the shit work in the ensemble to the computer. Probably the
next thing on the curve for us is developing pieces in which the
computer will interact with us more in an attempt to break away
from the sequencer/player model of interaction.
form could this interaction take, and what degree of interaction
is possible with today's technology?
now possible to have the computer "listen" to (at least the midi
part of) our performances, and react in some slightly intelligent
way based on how we've programmed the computer. For example, it
could listen for a particular melodic figure, and respond each
time with a figure of its own, or an algorithmically-generated
variation on the original figure.
I saw your concert in Atlanta back in March, Erik
occasionally played what looked to be something like a Midi Theremin,
or at least something that worked on the same principles. Is that
what that was?
was a regular Theremin. Erik is one of
the few people who actually owns and performs on one these days,
and he is (I think) quite good at it. I think his Theremin is
an original Maestro, but I could be wrong about that.
performance and the recording aspects of the music each present
different challenges and opportunities - do you enjoy one of those
activities more so than the other?
think it is about even. They are very different, and we like them
when the group is working out a new piece, how important and significant
are the competing interests of a) creating something that can
be faithfully reproduced by the four of you live, and b) creating
something that takes full advantage of the various tools and opportunities
a recording studio provides?
main thrust has always been to do "a" when we are working out
a new piece. Sometimes we end up doing "b" once we actually are
in the process of recording a piece (we don't avoid doing things
in the studio just because we wouldn't be able to do them live),
but this is not how we approach pieces initially.
often do you get to perform?
less these days than before, due mostly to the fact that everyone
has gotten so busy. We perform about once every other month, I'd
there any concert/tour plans in the near future?
be doing residencies/workshops/concerts in late September at Duke
University (Durham, NC), and University of North Carolina at Ashville.
Beyond that, nothing is firm, but we hope to do a west coast/Hawaii
tour in November of 1996.
The Ken Field/Michael
Bierylo interview originally ran in Exposť